The Secret to Memorizing Multiplication Tables

When I was a kid, we had in our school a strange tradition called examinations, where innocent children were tested and graded on how well they were performing in each subject. I was a good student and scored high in every subject. (This isn't important to the story but I thought I'd just throw it in there.)

One of the subjects was Math and apart from the written exam where we added, subtracted, divided and multiplied numbers, which is always fun, we also had an oral exam, in which we were supposed to recite different multiplication tables. You know, like five one za five, five two za ten, five three za fifteen and so on and so forth. (I write 'za' because that's the closest phonetic approximation of the sound we made when we recited these lines.)

I remember a time when I had already figured out that instead of memorizing the entire table, it was better to just keep adding the number to the previous answer to 'get' the entire table. So if five one za is five then five two za is five plus five, which is ten. And five three za is ten plus five i.e. fifteen.

Using this system, I could write down, or recite, any table known to man. I had hacked the system. Or cracked the system. Or done something to the system. And this should have been the aim of the 'teaching system' which made us do these things: to help us to figure things out for ourselves.

But my math teacher wasn't having any of that. She told us in a stern voice before the oral exam that she would ask us to recite one table but we can't add the numbers inside our heads. We must recite them from memory.

Of course, I was so fast at doing the addition, and so good at thinking a different thought while doing or saying something else, that I did the calculations in my head while reciting the first part of each line. So I would be saying five four za and in my head I would be adding fifteen with five to arrive at the answer of twenty right at the exact moment.

I scored perfect on that test. I disobeyed my teacher and used addition to help me with multiplication. I was THAT cool!

Now, I remember this incident and scoff at how silly systems can become. Instead of being proud of children for figuring out that multiplication is only addition, they were forcing us to rely on memory instead of intelligence. Basically, they were saying, "Don't dare use your intelligence to find an easier way, just do as we tell you and memorize useless stuff."

It also shows how stupid it is to think that what we know as best, is most definitely the only best way to do something. This kind of arrogance in our own knowledge and understanding is best got rid of, as soon as possible, if we truly want to understand the world and life and the universe.

I guess the difference is between seeking knowledge for the sake of honest understanding versus seeking knowledge to feed the ego into thinking that we know everything. The wisest man knows everything, including the fact that his understanding of everything might be wrong, and he really might not know anything at all.

That's it. That's the story. I don't know why I wrote it. I just remembered that incident and it made me laugh at how ridiculous it was. And now to end it, I can never find a good way to end a story, here is the table of five written completely from memory!



Photo Credit: Pissapro Flickr via Compfight cc